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Student engagement has a direct impact on learning. An experienced educator identifies three conditions essential for student learning.

A K-12 student who is learning is a student who is engaged. An engaged student is a student who feels connected. A connected student is a student who feels like they belong. Taken together, student engagement (belonging, connection, and engagement) is the single most crucial variable in education. It is the variable for which schools—and the broader school system—should be held responsible, whether focusing on an individual student, groups of students, or the whole school. These components of student engagement truly create the conditions necessary for learning.  

Three Conditions Essential for Student Learning

Students who feel a sense of belonging feel respected, accepted and supported by teachers and peers in their classrooms and across their schools. They feel accepted for who they are at the classroom level and within the school-as-a-whole. Their learning is relevant to who they are as individuals, and the learning environment reflects who they are and where they come from. Students who feel they belong believe that they are honored, respected, and essential to the collective. Feeling a sense of belonging is a precursor to being connected.  

Students who are connected believe the adults and peers in their school care about them as individuals and about their learning. These students care about other students in their school and want to see them succeed. They have at least one adult in the school to whom they can turn for help. When they need help, they ask for it. They believe their teachers have high expectations for them. Finally, they feel cared for when treated with kindness. A connected student feels a sense of belonging and is well-positioned to be a student who is highly engaged.  

Students who are engaged demonstrate a high level of interest, enthusiasm, and involvement in their learning. They enjoy learning new things and feel confident they can complete challenging tasks if they don’t give up. They have regular opportunities to express themselves and to choose topics that interest them. Generally, engaged students feel a sense of connection and belonging in their school; however, there are students who feel connected and have a sense of belonging yet don’t have a high level of interest, enthusiasm, and involvement in their learning.  

Measure what Matters

The ideal learning environment yields high student engagement levels through intentional efforts to ensure students are engaged, connected, and feel they belong. It is arguably the most critical variable to consider and address to ensure learning for all students. Measuring the student experience for belonging, connection, and engagement is as simple as asking kids to share their experiences. Student surveys, interviews, and observations provide a window into the student experience. It is a measure that can and should drive every teacher’s and school’s efforts for continuous improvement. 

When was the last time you asked your students about their level of engagement in school?  

Matt Coleman

Dr. Matt Coleman is the CEO of Inflexion. His focus on school systems change has produced demonstrable results, is rooted in organizational theory and informed by Matt’s extensive experience working at every level of the secondary education system, as an educational assistant, middle and high school teacher, high school assistant principal, middle and high school principal, director of secondary education, and assistant superintendent.